Sharps & Flats

A double live set remembers when Guns n' Roses played with the thunder of the gods.

Published December 8, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"You wanted the best? Well they didn't fucking make it. So here's what you get. From Hollywood. Guns. N'. Roses."

This growling, fuck-all-y'all introduction kick-starts "Live Era '87-'93," which is likely to be the final testament to the fiery bombast that was the old Guns n' Roses. The 22-track double-disc set begins with two ominous whistles that at once announce "Appetite for Destruction's" "Nighttrain" and recall Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." It's an apt homage. A decade ago, W. Axl Rose seemed a true heir to the bat-chomping, maniacal Osbourne, and GN'R was proving, a decade after Black Sabbath's heyday, that it was still possible for metal bands to rock with virtuoso ferocity.

The lion's share of this set -- 10 tracks -- is taken from "Appetite." Of these, the well-worn classics are not the highlights. "Sweet Child O' Mine" is a less explosive rendition of the studio version, and "Paradise City," in its customary place at the end of the set, is a nice historical touch but otherwise doesn't add much.

The four songs that start off "Live Era" are another story. Recorded in the days before Guns n' Roses started touring with Lycra-laden back-up singers, to say nothing of full horn sections, these songs offer up gritty, hard-edged fury marked by Rose's screeching and Slash's finger-knotting solos. Whether it's Rose announcing, "I smoke my cigarette with style" on "Nighttrain," or Slash ripping it up Tony Iommi-style on "It's So Easy," these songs show that GN'R had more arrogant panache than the entire lineup of Woodstock 99 combined.

This mini-set finishes off with "Welcome to the Jungle," one of "Live's" highlights. "Do you know where the fuck you are?" Rose shrieks by way of introduction. "You're in the jungle baby. Wake up! Time to dieeeeeeeeeeeee!" He sounds like Jack Nicholson hacking through the bathroom door with an ax in "The Shining." Or what Nicholson might have sounded like if he was amped up on dope and fame and preening, shirtless, in front of tens of thousands of chicks in Spandex.

Alas, the whole set can't capture the early, intoxicating magic of those heady days before "The Spaghetti Incident?" The next song on the collection, "Use Your Illusion's" bloated "Dust n' Bones," sees to that. With minor piano that evokes Foreigner's "Cold as Ice," "Dust n' Bones" immediately ratchets down the energy level, if only temporarily. (Note to Slash: If Axl does ever invite you back to the party, lose the Frampton wah-wah.) And the obligatory lighter numbers like an acoustic "Patience" and "Don't Cry" -- to say nothing of Rose's grand-piano indulgences on "November Rain" -- are fine, but nothing more. GN'R didn't build its reputation on mawkish power ballads, and these songs would only convey chills if you were there the first time around.

Still, a handful of mediocre tracks hardly tempers the visceral power of a GN'R live show. Indeed, one of the thrills of "Live Era" is hearing the countless little moments that convey the grit and grime and spontaneity of live performance. Take, for instance, the segment that leads into "Used to Love Her." Here, Rose explains that, while most of GN'R's songs are "based on an element of truth," he never actually did kill a girlfriend; that, natch, is just a "kind of like fantasy." You want danger in music? Hearing Rose announce, his voice dripping with bliss and venom, when "sometimes you think about it when your girlfriend or boyfriend is just a pain in the fucking ass and you just wish you could cut their fucking head off and stuff it in a bag and stick it in the backyard" is as close as you're likely to get these days.

A reunited Black Sabbath has been working of late, headlining Ozzfest. The members of Sabbath are old now and fairly bloated. The shows are fine, but suffice it to say that most of the danger is gone. With Axl promising/threatening to reform GN'R with all new members, wishful thinkers can hope the once and future king will reign supreme once again. Don't hold your breath.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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